The Evidence Base

Informing Policy in Health, Economics & Well-Being
A collaboration with
USC Dornsife Center for economic and social research

The “Un-Average”: Not Every Child Bounced Back After COVID

In the wake of COVID-related school disruptions, recent research has revealed what is proving to be a durable “parent-expert disconnect” – parents report their children are doing fine academically despite evidence to the contrary. News headlines describe learning losses, gaps in achievement between students from majority and minority groups, watered-down school expectations, and the highest rates of chronic absenteeism ever seen. Our research team at the Center for Applied Research in Education at Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research and the USC Ed Policy Hub recently shared what we learned from interviews with caregivers about this disconnect.

Described in more detail in our full report. we conducted 45-minute interviews with 40 families, a subset of thousands we have been surveying for years as part of our Understanding America Study (UAS). We purposefully selected those who had reported greater or less concern than average over the last few years. We identified several reasons explaining why caregivers’ perspectives do not align to what the education researchers’ data are showing – pointing to differences between how parents and experts observe and quantify student progress.

But we also heard an important human story, we expand upon here – one that reminds us of the less common, but still persistent, struggles some children are experiencing. Hearing about these experiences in the voices of those who watched it take place, reminded us of the “un-average” – those rarely described in news stories, but who nonetheless need attention from our education system.

How bad was it?

In approximately half of our conversations,  parents and caregivers described their child’s school experiences during COVID in intensely negative ways: “train wreck,” “wasted year,” “disaster,” and “awful, absolutely horrible.” The experience was “ridiculous and frustrating for everybody,” “really stressful for (the child),” it “stressed him out emotionally,” leaving one child “sad for months.” In the most severe example, one parent recounted her daughter’s “traumatic” experiences, including weight gain, depression, and falling grades during remote learning. After the return to in-person school, with safety protocols did not allow the child to socialize with her fellow students, this student felt “very depressed to the point of wanting to take her own life.”

Extraverted students couldn’t socialize or form bonds/connections with teachers. Most caregivers who described very bad COVID experiences mentioned the negative impact of isolation and lack of time with peers, not being in school buildings socializing, and the inability to develop and foster relationships with teachers. We heard about kids who “didn’t care as much,” who “missed the physical contact and communication”, and about kids who became depressed. More than one family initiated therapy for their child to address emergent mental health struggles

For others, learning in an online-only environment was challenging, children lost friendships, lost a sense of security, or feared getting sick. Some children were home with a caretaker who was unable to help with schoolwork or who was watching many children at once, as in one case “just at home with his caretaker, not really understanding much of his packet work.” There were technology struggles: unstable internet connections, inconsistent instructions, and difficulty “navigating the online classrooms and various applications.” As one parent described: “He would fall asleep because (we) had one school computer for two kids. … The computer that he had didn’t have a camera, so he couldn’t see the other students; he couldn’t see the teacher.”

Families of younger children described a lack of attention span, while caregivers of older children described a major loss in motivation and/or caring about school. Parents of children with learning disabilities or special needs described accommodations and adaptations that “all just went away.”

For whom was COVID learning NOT terrible?

The other half of our sample tended to describe students who found remote schooling to be ok, though sometimes boring, too easy, or unengaging. One caregiver said their child was “fine with remote school,” while another said remote school “went really well.” Two said their child “loved remote school.” Notably though, these students tended to fit one of a few specific profiles:

  1. Six of these caregivers had very young children: either in preschool or kindergarten for the 2020-21 school year. There were no grades to reflect on and an absence of “before and after COVID” comparisons that older children’s parents could draw upon.
  2. Another subgroup included children described as introverted or struggling with anxiety. As one parent explained, “She … enjoyed not having to interact with other students, do presentations…” Another said, “He was more excited about online school than in-person school because he got to stay in bed all day.”
  3. Another group of students who did mostly well were students who never really fit the traditional school model. For instance, one “did well because there weren’t kids around to distract him.” Another “was able to be more independent (and) make his own decisions, and I found that really helped him do a little bit better.”
  4. A few in this group had a non-working caregiver at home who could help with homework, navigate technology, or even in some cases, supplement the curriculum.

Most are back on track; some continue to struggle

The reality is that even among this group of parents who described awful COVID-era school experiences, more than half do not have lingering concerns about their children. As we describe more fully in in our ”The Kids are All Right” report, many children seemed to have quickly bounced back.

But among the minority with lingering concerns, most shared a common fear that the child is behind where they should be and/or did not learn what they should have. We heard statements like “He was put behind … in terms of learning,” and “Maybe he didn’t learn some things as well as he should have (and) maybe that is affecting him now.” One parent felt the losses mounted in subsequent years as each year was spent relearning content they should have learned in the prior year.

Several described their child as not yet back on track or needing more time. One parent of a student in fifth grade when COVID shut down schools described fifth-grade math as a “fundamental year” that is supposed to prepare students for middle-school math. But now in middle school, it is clear that “she didn’t comprehend anything that she did virtually.” One mother surmised, “It’s going to take her probably another year to catch up.” At least two expressed concerns that the watered-down rigor of post-pandemic school is not providing the skills necessary for their child to succeed later, whether in college or after.

Pre-existing challenges

Notably, among those interviewed who expressed ongoing concerns, a sizeable proportion mentioned disabilities or other pre-existing challenges. One described their child’s epilepsy, seizures, and language disability, noting apparent developmental delays. Another child needed extensive speech therapy to begin approaching grade level. A third had issues relating to other students, not wanting to be around them. This was not a pattern we anticipated, and we did not ask about pre-existing challenges or disabilities explicitly, so the true prevalence may be even higher.

Moving on

Often, research results focus on averages: What was the “typical” experience? What is the “common pattern?” After we compiled our full report and described the predominant or average trends, standing out to us was the extent to which variation can easily be overlooked. Interviews are so rich with detail, rich in ways that quantitative data cannot capture, that this reminder stuck with us. School experiences during COVID varied by a child’s age, the amount of time spent in online learning, the child’s personality, their “fit” within a traditional school model, and an infinite number of other factors – measurable and unmeasurable. And though most children bounced back, there are still those with lingering challenges, oftentimes children for whom challenges pre-dated the pandemic. As time goes by, these challenges may continue to impede recovery for some who need support the most, exacerbating gaps between those who barely struggled at all and those who struggled the most. Practitioners, educators, and policymakers must remember the “un-averages” if we are to be successful recovering all kids from COVID’s disastrous effects on education.

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